Currently Reading: The Clan of the Cave Bear
Ayla felt a great outpouring of sadness from Creb's one dark, liquid eye. "Durc is the son of the whole clan, Ayla. He's the only son of the Clan."
Author: Jean M. Auel
Synopsis: After her family is killed in an earthquake, a five-year-old Cro-Magnon girl is rescued by a clan of Neanderthals. The clan's medicine woman and magician take her in and raise her, trying to help her adapt to the difficulties of living among people who see her as different and sometimes hate her for it.
Notes: Special thanks to Erin and her mother-in-law, Anne, for the recommendation. I took the book huckleberry picking to read on the long drive, and it had me sneaking spare moments to turn pages.
This book reminded me forcibly of the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Ugly Duckling. When Iza adopts Ayla, the protagonist, most of the Clan members are suspicious. Ayla is taller, slow to mature, and, lacking the Clan's built-in sense of ancient rules, often does things that the others consider out-of-place or even wrong. The reader understands, though, that Ayla has more intellectual capacity and finer physical skills. She is also—despite being thought unattractive by the Neanderthals—what we would call beautiful. But lie the misplaced cygnet, she believes the Clan when they tell her she is ugly.
Ayla has a little more fight to her than Christiansen's baby swan, however, and hard as she tries to fit in, she can't quite quell her sense of injustice at some of the things she is asked to do or not do. Nor can she resist her desire to test and refine her broader skill set. The Clan reacts, and her life is often jeopardized.
Here I must point out that this novel is adult in nature, not something I pulled off the YA shelves: Clan practices include abortion, infanticide, "cursing with death", a bizarre cannibalistic rite which Auel describes using the word "communion", secret use of herbal contraception by the medicine women, abusive male domination, and rape (there is one especially brutal rape scene).
That disclaimer aside, the book has its merits. Most notably, there is no way to review this book without some sort of paean to Auel's research. Medicinal plants, wilderness survival, how to kill and preserve a mammoth, making rudimentary weapons and hunting with them—it all makes for fascinating reading. And my favorite part (by far the most speculative, but incredibly well thought-through): the way the Neanderthals were themselves portrayed. They had human emotions, with the strengths and weaknesses thereof; they had human—if limited—cognitive abilities, but with ancestral memories that suggested animal instinct.
Ayla's differences will make her sympathetic to anyone who has ever experienced feeling like an outsider (haven't we all?); her plucky will to survive and her love for her new family make her lovable.
Recommendation: If you're not a feminist, read it with a grain of salt. If you're not a Darwinist, read it with a tablespoonful. If you like your historical novels well-researched and believable, even when they drift into fancy (and they all do), read it with interest and pleasure.